By repurposing convention centers, camps for oil workers and military bases, the Biden administration has launched an unprecedented effort to open more than 16,000 emergency beds for migrant children in response to historic numbers of unaccompanied minors entering U.S. border custody.
More than 16,500 unaccompanied migrant children were in federal custody as of early Wednesday. More than 11,500 of those children were being housed in shelters and emergency housing sites, while another 5,000 were stranded in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities, which the Biden administration has said are not appropriate for minors.
U.S. agents along the southern border are on track to apprehend more than 16,000 unaccompanied children in March, which would be an all-time high, according to an analysis of government records reviewed by CBS News. The previous record-high came in May 2019, when more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors entered U.S. custody along the southern border.
To respond to the unprecedented spike in arrivals of migrant children traveling without parents or legal guardians, the U.S. government is on track to open at least nine emergency housing facilities within President Biden's first three months in office. The Trump administration operated three influx housing facilities over four years, and only one of them is currently active.
The facilities the Biden administration has opened or plans to open include two convention centers in Dallas and San Diego, as well as an arena in San Antonio. A camp for oil workers in Midland, Texas, has been converted into a makeshift shelter, while another in west Texas is set to start receiving children in April. On Wednesday, an emergency housing installation for up to 500 children was erected near Carrizo Springs, Texas, where a Trump-era influx facility was reopened last month.
The Pentagon also announced late Wednesday it will allow HHS to use a dormitory at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and land at Fort Bliss in west Texas to house migrant children. The Lackland facility will be able to house 350 children, while Fort Bliss has capacity for up to 5,000, the administration told Congress on Thursday. Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is also being evaluated as a potential site to house migrant children, the Pentagon confirmed.
Once fully operational, the nine emergency facilities will be able to collectively accommodate more than 16,000 children, according to data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services' refugee agency, which is charged with housing unaccompanied migrant minors until it can place them with vetted sponsors, who are typically family members residing in the U.S.
Unlike the more than 170 shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house unaccompanied children, emergency or influx facilities opened on federal property are not licensed by state authorities to house minors — which has historically been a concern for immigrant advocates.
"We've railed against influx facilities in the past. So, on the one hand, it's difficult to see children placed in these facilities," Jennifer Nagda, the policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, told CBS News. "On the other hand, ORR is doing things it has never done before — like opening emergency sites just to get kids out of CBP's law enforcement facilities and into spaces staffed by child welfare professionals."
Nagda noted the refugee agency has also recently made efforts to place children with sponsors more quickly, including by creatingthis week to fast-track the release of minors with parents or legal guardians in the U.S.
"These are steps prior administrations failed to take and they're a sign of real change within ORR," Nagda said.
While Republican detractors have portrayed the sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children being taken into U.S. border custody as a crisis with humanitarian, national security and public health implications, the Biden administration has publicly approached it as a formidable logistical challenge that can be solved by expanding bed capacity for the young migrants.
Sheltering unaccompanied children and allowing them to seek U.S. asylum or other forms of humanitarian refuge is not a new policy crafted by the Biden administration. That process is outlined in U.S. law, but the Trump administration suspended it last year by invoking a public health order, known as Title 42, that it said was necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
After more than 15,000 unaccompanied children were expelled from the U.S.-Mexico border without due process, a federal judge in November 2020 blocked the practice, saying it violated both public health law and legal safeguards Congress created for migrant minors. Just a few days after Mr. Biden's inauguration, a federal appeals court lifted the judge's order, but the Biden administration declined to fully reinstate the policy and formally protected unaccompanied children from the Title 42 expulsions.
Top administration officials have said they will not back down from their decision, calling the expulsions of children inhumane. Instead, the administration has said it wants to address the root causes of migration from Central America and expand legal avenues for people in the region to come to the U.S. as refugees or workers.
Mr. Biden on Wednesday announced that he was tapping Vice President Kamala Harris tothe administration's efforts to reduce U.S.-bound migration from Central America, including by working with Mexico and other governments in the region to address poverty, violence and other factors that prompt families and children to trek north.
Due to the limited shelter capacity, many Border Patrol facilities, most of which were built to detain adult migrant men, have become. Children in U.S. border custody have reported to lawyers showering once in as many as seven days; sleeping on the floor because of overcrowding; and not seeing sunlight in nearly a week.
The Biden administration has yet to allow journalists inside Border Patrol holding facilities, but on Wednesday, it allowed a network camera to document a joint White House and congressional visit to the refugee agency's influx facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which is housing more than 700 teenage boys.
The migrant boys there have access to medical screenings, classroom instructions, recreational activities like soccer games and other services not found in Border Patrol stations. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat from New York who toured the facility Wednesday, said he spoke to some of the teenage boys, many of whom hailed from Honduras and Guatemala.
"They said that they were coming because of a future, for a better future," Espaillat told CBS News.
Ed O'Keefe, David Martin and Eleanor Watson contributed reporting.